Valérie Hayaert (Paris/Bonn): Lady Justice and her avatars


Lady Justice is the only cardinal virtue still highly recognizable today. Is it because she was used to allegorize an institution ? What are the conditions of the afterlife of images in the long duration ? As a female body aimed to entice the viewer to step in her spatial frame, Lady Justice is one actualization of the various female allegories which haunted the city spaces and the ephemeral festivities of early modern cities. She stood out as a civic allegory. The allegorical body, often perceived as an immutable and repetitive concept, may gain more insights if we look at it as a fragmented entity.

Often reduced to a static posture where she is majestically enthroned, she is sometimes the subject of a less conventional stature. The depiction of an ideal of orderly rule and harmony is not necessarily static. If the allegory aims at keeping some sort of persuasive power, it needs to embody at the same time ambivalent polarities: the sharp contrast between the benefits and harms of justice are more convincing if the allegorical body restores some sort of inner psychomachia.

If we consider the anatomical structure of Dame Justice to be first and foremost an instrument for ecphrasis, i.e. an enticing figure pointing towards what is being unseen, the allegorical body can serve as a symbolic operator for various symbolic processes. The important point here is that Lady Justice might have been used to embody Charity –a virtue- or Equity –a way to exercise Justice-, Distributive Justice or Commutative Justice, Rigorousness –coercive justice- but she also might blend herself with Dame Fortune, or even Dame Folly. Her face, posture, mimics also deserve careful scrutiny. Several visual codes affect Lady Justice as an image; the anatomy of her body parts allows us to see beyond the straightforward denotations of her attributes. Lady Justice may borrow symbols of clemency, majesty, authority, but also elements deriving from courtly eroticism or satirical charivaris. Her body contains several levels of denotation and connotation. Sometimes frowning or lit by a cryptic smile, she remains an allegorical personification playing a role in the theatrical performances of the time.

In his quest to deploy timeless and universal truths to assemble humans around collective ideals, allegories have a special role to address the paradoxical need for the law to be without historical specificity as a basis for its claim to legitimacy and authority. Walter Benjamin has noted the essential « inactuality » of the allegory. In order to emphasize the values and assumptions shared by a consensus and dominant standards, the allegorical form needs to be fed by constant iterations and reiterations. As Montaigne put it (1580) and as Derrida (1989-1990) commented upon, legal orders cannot erase their « mystical foundations of authority » for it is precisely in the masquerade of justice that lies the foundation of their legitimacy.

The most imaginative allegories of justice are double-scope bodies. Lady Justice’s body revives the dynamics of two different organizing gestures (the balanced, precision-handling of the scales and the power-grip of the threatening sword). Sharp differences between the two salient gestures offer the possibility of rich clashes ; such clashes offer challenges to the imagination. Blending incompatible elements such as scales and swords is a way to suggest the allegorical body magically moves from one category to another. The conceptual blend in which the representation of legitimized violence is fused with symbolic moderation is extremely useful : it builds a contributing mental space that contains two different polarities.

Curriculum Vitae

Dr. Valérie Hayaert studied Modern Literature at the École Normale Supérieure (Fontenay-aux-Roses/Lyon) as well as at the Universities of Paris (Sorbonne-nouvelle (Paris III) and Denis Diderot (Paris VII)) from 1996 to 2000. She also studied Art History at the École du Louvre. In 2005, she earned her Ph.D. in History and Civilization at the European University Institute Florence with a dissertation on “Mens emblematica’ et humanisme juridique: le cas du ‘Pegma cum narrationibus philosophicis’ de Pierre Coustau, Lyon, 1555”. Valérie Hayaert received the European University Institute Prize for the best interdisciplinary thesis in 2006.

Subsequently, Valérie Hayaert taught in France, Tunisia, United Kingdom and Cyprus. Following her teaching activities, she worked as a research associate at the Erasmus House (Brussels) and the Fondation Bodmer in Cologny (Geneva). Since 2014 Valérie Hayaert has been working at the Institut des Hautes Études sur la Justice, Paris. Additionally, she was Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris in 2017. She also became a member of the editorial board for the journal Emblematica. An interdisciplinary Journal for Emblem Studies.

Since April 2018 Dr. Valérie Hayaert is Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities “Law as Culture”, Bonn.